“Running a lab is like running a business, but most labs are poorly run businesses – they throw money out the window.” – paraphrasing an article I saw in my campus periodical, the University Gazette.


  • Generate more funding through grants or contracts; or
  • Operate more efficiently with the funding that you have.
  • That’s it, door 1 or door 2.

    For door 1, generating more grants used to be a viable option, but that keeps getting harder and harder to do. Many researchers are struggling just to maintain consistent funding, so expansion is out of the question for many. Grant funding is getting ever more scarce, and with the recent political changes in the US, the chance of increased science budgets in the near future is slim to none.

    On the other hand, door 2 remains highly under-appreciated and underutilized. If you could operate your lab 20% more efficiently, let’s think about the implications of that in terms of your overall budget for people, supplies, and equipment:

    Say you have a single R01 grant funding your lab right now at $200k/yr in direct costs (a relatively modest budget for a research lab).

    Twenty percent of $200k/yr is $40k/yr. That’s enough money for:

    – Two additional undergrad students (possibly three) working part time in your lab

    – One additional graduate student, with leftover budget for supplies

    – An advanced liquid chromatography instrument, or a centrifuge (lightly used)

    The take-home message is that a relatively small increase in efficiency (20%) leads to significant gains in overall cash available to do more and better work. It is not chump change, and can make a real difference.

    But the question is, how do we achieve that modest 20% gain? If it were so easy, wouldn’t everyone be doing it?

    I ask you to think about how organized your lab is. How much time do you or your people spend searching for samples? How much time do you spend showing new people in the lab where stuff is, and training them on your procedures and protocols? Think about how quickly new people are at getting up to speed, and how efficient your existing personnel are…  What if you could substantially reduce those kind of inefficiencies?  It is not farfetched.

    It does surprise me that “not everyone is doing it” – but I think years of expanding science budgets made it a bit too easy to focus on getting more money rather than maximally using the money that we have. With expanding science budgets far from assured, I predict a future where many labs are going to be turning to improved efficiency as an alternative approach. Those that do will likely get ahead.

    Here’s an example: my department inventoried chemicals a few years ago, and we found a huge volume of a particular solvent in each lab, far more than we could ever use up. There were vastly redundant supplies of this chemical because nobody had a good tracking system to know who had what and where they had it. If there had been some kind of tracking in place, it would have saved thousands of dollars worth of this costly solvent. That is one example of many I’ve seen. Each one may be a small bit of money – but small bits of money have a way of adding up into big chunk of money.

    You’re with me on this, right? Improving the efficiency of your lab’s operation boils down to:

    1. Better communication, so that the people that need to get up to speed on new protocols aren’t held up and can get going on their jobs quickly and efficiently

    2. Improved tracking of milestones and accomplishments, so you can hold people more accountable (this is really important!)

    3. Better organization of your samples and supplies, so you know what you have, where it is located, and when you need more.

    If you’re like me, you may look at this list and say, “well, that’s nice, but HOW do I do those things?” I used to think that this kind of stuff was only for those who aren’t organizationally challenged (like I am). I simply didn’t have the willpower to implement strong organizational systems in my lab.

    But here’s the big bonus for organizationally dysfunctional folks like me: the advent of new internet-based technologies has now brought organizational improvement to within the grasp of even the chronically disorganized (as well as the people who are only mildly disorganized).

    By applying these kinds of technologies to get more organized in each of the three key areas (communication, accountability, and sample/supply tracking), I have noticed significant improvements in efficiency.

    In the next few articles, I’m going to cover some of the tools that I’ve discovered that can turn your lab from an inefficient, rusty machine into a well-oiled, efficient machine that cranks out work more quickly, and helps you keep ahead of the competition. It should easily help you become 20% more efficient. Stay tuned!

    Morgan

    p.s. –  Comments are not FDA approved, so it could kill you to leave one.  But if you’re the daredevil type, I dare you to go ahead and try.

    18 thoughts

    1. This approach is something that we have been doing in my lab since I started in science. In Spain funding is only a fraction of what you can get in the US, so you have to be really efficient to be in the top group of labs. When I was a postdoc abroad, I was surprised to see how much money was thrown out of the window because students and postdocs did not plan carefully their work. An example: we work on human genetics and we spend a lot of money to PCR-amplify exons on human DNA. You save a lot of money and, critically, time, if you optimize primer design so that every exon amplifies on the same conditions of time and temperature (and when you study a 70-exon gene, this tells!). This is a case of “one pint of sweat (thinking is free but hard) saves a bunch of bucks”.
      Yet, being efficient with your money should never mean that you stop thinking big, because this is also a key to success.

      1. @Francisco, I think you hit on a really important point. When I talk to senior colleagues about the “old days,” it is clear that they knew how to do more with less. Instead of buying a fancy piece of costly equipment, they’d just make it from scratch. I believe that the increasing budgets throughout the 90’s here in the US kind of made us a bit lax about this. But I think it is time to start learning how to be more efficient, like you’ve already been doing for years!

    2. Morgan,
      I’ve been in unorganized and organized labs and I agree there is a large difference in the efficient use of money and reagents between them. Take the time to set up your inventory management and protocol database correctly at the beginning and you’ll be amazed how much time and money you save down the road.

    3. My graduate advisor worked on the efficiency model, so I can confirm it works. He ran a lab of 2 grad students and a part-time permanent postdoc who acted as lab manager with no NIH grants and only NSF subcontracts from collaborators. Through this efficiency, I think he stretched a full extra year out of every grant he ever obtained by using no-cost extensions. Perhaps the model of spending more time without applying for new grants might be an equally strong draw for some people than hiring another grad student.

      By the way, I’m sure you are aware that the cost of grad students varies wildly by institution. At my graduate school, they cost roughly the same as postdocs because everyone was provided with employee-level benefits. On the other hand, at my current institution, grad-student stipends + tuition are 100% covered by the graduate school itself, making students nearly free.

      1. That’s a great story about your Grad advisor. And I agree – spending less time grant writing is a strong draw for many of us!

        Since I’m in the process of moving to a new and smaller institution (so that I have more time for the science career stuff), I’ve definitely encountered the difference that you mention about graduate stipends. At UNC it was similar to your graduate school, where a grad student is as costly as a post doc.

    4. I just watched your latest video, and couldn’t agree with you more. As I say, money is money; the less you spend, the more you save. There is so much waste out there, and it just takes the training to note it. The topic of Lean (lean manufacturing, lean transactional, 7 wastes, 5S, etc.) comes to mind. There is a ton on free content online, including many YouTube videos. It helped our laboratory facility immeasurably.

      1. Hey Paul, this is great stuff. As I mentioned in email to you, I’m very interested in the “lean” concept, I think it fits well with lots of other things I’ve been working on for this subject.
        Thanks!

    5. So true, so true. I just stumbled upon a nice website for organizing and sharing protocols called Protocol Pedia (https://www.protocolpedia.com/). Maybe my New Year’s resolution will be to upload my lab’s protocols.

      Does anyone know of any ‘canned’ inventory tracking freeware that would be applicable to a small lab?

      1. Hi Cheryl, a while ago I ran across a “freeware” LIMS system, but I can’t recall the name of it, maybe someone else will remember?

        Thanks for the pointer to protocol podia, very interesting!

    6. Hey Morgan,
      You are right on target! Someone just introduced me to the following website [https://www.biodata.com/], which seems to offer a possible solution to the problem you identified.

    7. Hey there! I know this is somewhat off-topic however I needed
      to ask. Does running a well-established website like yours require
      a massive amount work? I’m brand new to running a blog however I do write in my diary on a daily basis.
      I’d like to start a blog so I can share my personal experience and feelings online.
      Please let me know if you have any ideas or tips for new aspiring blog owners.
      Appreciate it!

      1. It does take time, persistence, and business savvy to really make it work. I’d say the main thing is to not just put a blog up, but focus on solving problems that people want solved, and to start an email list for people who are interested to take it deeper. And keep at it 🙂

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